He wrote jokes for Hollywood comedians. Now he wants to write Jim Jordan out of Congress

Former House communications director Mike Larsen is running in the Democratic primary to challenge Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. (Courtesy Mike Larsen’s campaign)
Former House communications director Mike Larsen is running in the Democratic primary to challenge Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. (Courtesy Mike Larsen’s campaign)
Posted February 27, 2020 at 6:30am

Rep. Jim Jordan, with his refusal to wear a suit jacket and his withering interrogations of witnesses at hearings, has inspired more than his share of political humor.

President Donald Trump said the Ohio Republican was “obviously very proud of his body.” Jordan was also parodied on “Saturday Night Live” by a wild-eyed Bill Hader, who spat out, “I’m so angry that I couldn’t even wear a jacket today.”

So it’s fitting that one of the three Democrats competing in the March 17 primary for the chance to take on Jordan this fall is a professional comedian.

Mike Larsen spent years as a stand-up performer and a writer for comedy shows, including “Ellen,” “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “The Drew Carey Show.” He is also a former Hill staffer.

He sometimes does a bit about how his skills as a comedian transferred to his job working as a communications director for California Rep. Jackie Speier.

“Pretty much every other person who calls a congressional office is a heckler,” he said.

Larsen’s bid is a long shot. He entered the race late and has had to catch up to better-funded primary rivals. Jordan, who does not have a primary, has a national profile and the likely support of the president. His 4th District, which backed Trump by 33 points in 2016, was drawn to favor Republicans.

But if he wins, Larsen would have the distinction of being the lone comedian in Congress, a body that has its share of other entertainers, including actors, athletes and radio talk show hosts.

The only other professional funny person to serve in recent memory, former “SNL” cast member Al Franken, famously made a point of tamping down the humor when he decided to run for the Senate.

Larsen and his supporters admit it could be a challenge to convince voters he is serious about the job.

“Sometimes people hear ‘comedian,’ and they think: ‘clown,’” he said. But Larsen argues that his career cracking jokes gives him an edge.

“When someone makes us laugh, we like them,” he said, “even when we disagree with them.”

Not a clown

What Larsen wants to make clear is that he’s serious about politics. In college, he was a political science major who did stand-up as a hobby.

He moved to Washington to find a job on the Hill. He ended up working for an organization that brings high school students to the city for a week of intensive politics.

At night, he prowled comedy clubs, where he sometimes saw Hill staffers perform or caught a set by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist — Larsen’s polar opposite politically, but still good for a laugh. “He’s funnier than you expect him to be,” Larsen said.

He didn’t consider himself a professional comedian until years later, after he performed on “The Tonight Show” in 1994. “I thought, ‘I guess this is what I do for a living now,’” he said.

Larsen was already in Los Angeles writing for television when Speier, whom he’d known for years, won election to the House and asked him to move his family back to Washington to work on her staff. It was a dream job for Larsen.

Speier and other staff members said he brought a rare set of skills. It was Larsen who convinced her to appear on the “Colbert Report” segment “Better Know a District” in 2009, after Rahm Emmanuel, the Democratic Caucus chairman at the time, had warned freshmen House members it was too much of a risk.

The result had a bewildered-looking Speier parrying questions about whether she could flip her head back and make candy come out of her neck (a reference to the now-defunct museum of Pez memorabilia in her district), and riding a skateboard down the Cannon Building hallways. In an outtake, Speier demonstrated her childhood judo skills by throwing Colbert’s body on the marble floor.

Speier said she never would have done that if not for Larsen: “He was just making the case that Stephen Colbert has an incredible viewership, you’re going to appeal to a whole new universe of voters, and it makes you even more relatable that you can laugh at yourself.”

Larsen also helped Speier craft a campaign around sexual assault in the military in 2011, before many people were talking about it. The issue has become a touch point of her career.

“He took the first phone call from a survivor who told a harrowing story about how she was raped in the military as a young recruit,” Speier said. Larsen, with his years of connecting with audiences, knew how to handle the situation, she recalled. “He was obviously very compassionate.”

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Funny business

It was no surprise to Tim Doyle, who gave Larsen his first job in Hollywood, that Larsen’s skills would be valuable in a congressional office.

Doyle worked with Larsen on “Ellen” in the mid-1990s, when the star Ellen DeGeneres was just coming out.

“She was a flawed character who had conflicting impulses, who made mistakes, making baby steps into this world of being a gay woman,” Doyle said. “Our job was to make this storytelling palatable to people who might be resistant … to this idea of a gay woman living her life on television.”

Making other people’s stories accessible is, of course, something politicians strive to do all the time. That’s one reason Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania who has studied political humor, is surprised that more comedians don’t run for office.

“You have to be smart to do comedy well,” she said. But there are clear caveats, she added. Good humor can be shocking. And shocking people is not a great campaign strategy.

That hasn’t been a problem for Rep. Rick Larsen, who has done stand-up routines for the D.C.’s “Funniest Celebrity” contest. The Washington Democrat, who is not related to Mike Larsen, said humor helps him loosen up crowds at town halls.

“Being able to tell a good joke is part of being able to communicate,” he said.

Norquist, the anti-tax activist, sees more pitfalls. Comedy often revolves around violating norms and intentional misunderstandings, he said, which don’t play well in politics.

“So much of comedy is taking cheap shots, pretending you didn’t understand what the person meant and running with that, that’s the funny part,” he said. “In politics, that’s just being dishonest.”

Jokes also make easy fodder for opposition researchers. Larsen says he would rather laugh at himself than make fun of other people. A “liberal-slash-hypocrite” is how he describes himself in his routines. “I have very high ideals. Absolutely no willpower to live by them.”

But he also has plenty of jokes that could be used against him. In one bit, Larsen, who moved to Ohio for his wife’s family, jokes that his new community is “the whitest place on earth” and that at his daughter’s school, the “student body represents families from 17 different country clubs.”

Outperforming the odds

But most of the potential stumbling points for Larsen are common for any campaign. At the end of the last Federal Election Commission reporting period on Dec. 31, he had raised only $66,000 and had $40,000 in the bank.

That put him well behind the other Democrats in the race. Shannon Freshour, a paralegal, had raised $289,000 and had $105,000 on hand. Jeffrey Sites, an Army veteran, had raised $160,000 and had $135,000 banked. Jordan, who is in his seventh term, was ahead of them all, raking in $3.8 million with $2.1 million on hand.

Jordan’s increased visibility as one of Trump’s most prominent defenders during the impeachment hearings is already attracting national attention for his Democratic rivals. Actress Rosie O’Donnell and filmmaker Judd Apatow gave to Larsen’s primary opponents. Actress Alyssa Milano has circulated fundraising pitches for Larsen, according to Cleveland.com.

Jordan has also faced new allegations that when he was an Ohio State wrestling coach, he he helped cover up the sexual abuse of student wrestlers by a team doctor. He has denied those claims. The scandal was already percolating in the 2018 midterms, when Jordan won by 31 points.

Larsen, who is running as the progressive in the primary, says Democrats in the district have made a mistake by tacking too much to the right.

“When I decided to run, I decided I’m not going to do that,” he said. “I talk about banning assault weapons, funding Planned Parenthood, investing in infrastructure, bringing broadband to rural communities. That is working.”

And if he makes it through the primary, he said, he sees Jordan as the perfect opponent. He has already rolled out campaign videos in which Jordan is portrayed by a puppet with beady eyes and a prominent chin.

“He is ripe for lampooning,” Larsen said. “He is an archetypal character. He is the angry little guy.”

Larsen also notes that an independent candidate, Chris Gibbs, could skim votes from Jordan in the November general election.

The strategy makes sense to Larsen’s supporters.

Speier said she had no reservations when Larsen asked for her thoughts on whether he should enter the race. “Who would have thought that Bernie Sanders would be the front-runner in the Democratic nomination six months ago?” she said. “Unusual things happen in politics.”

Kat Skiles, who worked with Larsen on Speier’s staff before becoming a messaging mobilization director for the Democratic National Committee and a senior adviser for Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, said Larsen had the kind of authenticity that could mobilize and inspire people. And his comedic experience could help him match Jordan on the stump.

“You could say anything about Jim Jordan, but he is a great public speaker,” she said. “He knows how to tick off his talking points.”

Democratic strategists, however, were more skeptical.

“Jordan will have to get caught up a great deal deeper in controversy for anyone on the Democratic side to have a shot at this,” said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist who ran Bill Clinton’s Ohio campaign in 1992. But he said it was in any of the Democratic candidates’ interest to run a robust campaign against someone with Jordan’s national profile.

The district lines are likely to be redrawn after the 2020 census, potentially making it friendlier territory for a Democrat, especially someone who has built up name recognition this year, he said. And that could be the last laugh.